Digital overture: Creating The People’s House at the Museum of Sydney

Four people dance in front of a large screen covered in shapes of various colours.

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The Sydney Opera House has played host to rockers, rappers and pop stars, stand-up comedians and bodybuilders, dancers and DJs, presidents, royalty and a pope or two—and more operas and orchestras than you can shake a conductor’s baton at. 

However, it is the everyday people who have turned the iconic landmark into a vibrant civic space and an ever-growing nexus of shared memories. As such, it’s only fitting that the new exhibition to celebrate the Sydney Opera’s House’s 50th year is titled The People’s House: Sydney Opera House at 50.

In collaboration with Museums of History NSW we delivered the creative concept for the exhibition, assisted with curation, produced audio interviews, and devising four interactive installations—'Maestro', 'On This Day', 'The Drafting Table', and 'Thanks For The Memories'—plus a curated gallery for The People’s House, all designed to inspire curiosity, contemplation, and collaboration. 

“We had a full suite of talent working on the project,” explains Lauren Manning, Program Director, when asked about the expertise needed to bring this exhibition to life. “Our team included creative technologists, front and backend engineers, data engineers—we had a lot of data to work with. And then we had people working on sound design, digital artistry, visual design, content and delivery.”

Collaborative communion with creative spirits

A highlight of the exhibition—and the most challenging-yet-exciting interactive to develop—was ‘'Maestro'’. Occupying the entire Gallery 1 space at Museum of Sydney, 'Maestro' is an immersive audio-visual environment in which visitors control generative music and visuals through movement of the body.

Sam Doust, Group Director, Creative Services, established what he describes as an “emergent framework” to guide the development of 'Maestro' as an interactive musical space, paying tribute to the inherent creative fabric of the Sydney Opera House and the thousands of performances it hosts every year. 

“'Maestro' needed to emerge as a creative process from the various skill sets we have at Art Processors,” says Sam. “It was admittedly risky because we started with very few definite elements and a lot of indefinite elements. There was an onus upon the individuals, their experience, their aptitude, their skills, their ability to communicate with each other.”

Julien de-Sainte-Croix, our Lead Creative Technologist who led 'Maestro'’s technical development, shares a similar perspective. “Not only were we aiming for something grand but we were doing something that we hadn't really done before as a company,” says Julien. “This wasn't going to be some cookie-cutter installation. We wanted to try this thing that we didn’t really know how to do, but we trusted that we had the right people in the company who could work it out.”

'Maestro' was the response to the question: how could we create an experience in which visitors could commune with the performative spirit of the Sydney Opera House? Initially inspired by the work of an orchestra conductor, we knew that it would be musical, visual, and physical. But what would we be asking visitors to do? What would they be hearing, seeing, and controlling? 

“It was a bit of a chameleon, changing quite a lot every few weeks,” says Lauren. “The other interactives shifted slightly throughout the usual process of refining them, but the finished 'Maestro' is a totally different beast to when we first started working on it.”

From the early stages it was determined that a gamified option, in which visitors would perform a series of predetermined choreographed movements—“in a sort of Guitar Hero manner,” as Julien describes—was out of the question, being incongruous to the spirit of spontaneity and creativity. We wanted to present visitors with the opportunity to experience what it felt like to be a performer.

The solution, in short, uses a series of Microsoft Kinect cameras to build basic skeletal structures of people within a designated space. In what was perhaps the most esoteric and experimental step of the process, our team created a middleware system to interpret the Kinect camera data into musical parameters in Ableton and visual parameters in TouchDesigner. Because, as Julien says, “a series of values from your skeletal joints in relative space doesn't necessarily map onto these parameters in an intuitive way.”

Visitors are invited to explore how the 'Maestro' environment is controlled. Variations such as the position of their hands in the space, and relative to one another, or the velocity at which they’re moved, can affect a wide range of audio and visual variables. One visitor is able to drive rhythmic instrumentation as another controls the melody, while a visual environment of swirling chevron tiles and floating gimbals responds to their movements. 

“There's so much detail to 'Maestro',” says Sam. “It's been interesting for us to deconstruct this. Not just from a technical documentation perspective, but from a theory perspective. I feel quite strongly that it landed as a piece of installation art, and as we’ve been asking, how do people play with it? The more inhibited you are, the less you'll get out of it, because it asks you to be fluid, it asks you to dance, it asks you to move around. And it also asks you to pay attention to what's happening. You can be a spectator and still really enjoy 'Maestro'.”

A story of spheres and shells

Among Sam’s very extensive knowledge of the Sydney Opera House, the history of its design and architecture is one element he finds particularly captivating. The People’s House provided him with an opportunity to present the story of its creation through an interactive called 'The Drafting Table'. 

“Having an interactive experience with the materials is one of the best ways to understand the reason why it's a World Heritage-listed site, and why it's won so much adoration and accolades in the architectural world,” says Sam. 'The Drafting Table' sits within the broader ‘The Great Urban Sculpture’ exhibition in Gallery 3, depicting the story of the renowned structure.

A young woman looks down, interacting with a digital drafting table interactive.

Using a stylus and touchscreen, this hands-on drafting experience asks visitors to draw conceptual, architectural, and engineering sketches while AI-augmented commentary provides conversational guidance and feedback. Nine different drawings can be explored, and, when completed, they form the beginning of a chapter delving into the significance of that image or concept. 

“There's one where you draw a leaf, and you wonder, what does a leaf have to do with the Opera House? The story behind that is intriguing,” says Sam. “I always want people to fall down rabbit holes in the pursuit of information. This was a semi-didactic and very interactive way of doing it. You feel like you're moving through Jørn Utzon and the engineers’ own footsteps.” 

Pulling back the curtain

Throughout the exhibition, visitors can listen to the extraordinary stories of 10 ordinary people who pull back the curtain on what it's like to work and perform at the Sydney Opera House. Produced with the visitor experience in mind, these 2-3 minute audio "rabbit holes" have been designed as an additional layer of insight and entertainment for visitors and are a natural complement to the memorabilia on display.

A man and woman stand together in a gallery, the man holding an audio puck to his ear and the woman trying to listen too.

Using pucks and headphones, visitors can hear Jean Long, a singer with the Sydney Philharmonica for over 40 years, describe how she "tingled" before every performance and shook the hand of the "very handsome" Prince Phillip at the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Then there's Peter Tucker who was employed as a builder's labourer in 1971 and still works there today. Now 72, he declares, "Oh yeah, it's part of me now. Yeah, yeah, the Sydney Opera House. Been here so long."

Content Director Liz Jackson says the decision was made early on to steer clear of celebrities. "This exhibition was to be a celebration of the Sydney Opera House, the 'People's House', and an exploration of ordinary, everyday people's memories. We wanted to speak to a broad cross section of people who have been a part of the Sydney Opera House story," says Liz.

A seasoned journalist who spent 26 years working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Liz met with many of the people whose stories feature in the exhibition at their homes. She says it was "absolutely lovely" to pore over their memorabilia and listen to them reminisce about what the Opera House means to them.

"When you're doing these interviews, you're really asking people to trust you with their life story. You know, for many people that I spoke to, this was their life," she says. "Some of the interviews were quite emotional. A few people got a bit teary because their memories of the Sydney Opera House are so important to them, and you can hear that emotion in their voices. It's that emotional, human connection that I think is really powerful and an important part of any story, and any exhibition."

Curating history

There is a remarkable volume of memorabilia hidden in the archives of museums, cultural institutions, and resident performing arts companies that our team enjoys curating.

Gallery 2 at The People’s House is dedicated to a journey through the history of performance at the Sydney Opera House, from both sides of the curtain. A wealth of historic photographs from its earliest days onwards are displayed alongside costumes from groups such as Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet, accompanied by posters and other artefacts from their events. 

Another section of the gallery features a life-size stage set to explore, in which they can discover the mechanics of the magic that takes place backstage, and offer visitors a nostalgic reflection on how the Opera House has become part of every Australian home through broadcasts, news stories, and memorabilia. 

A man standing in a room resembling a living area with couches and a lamp, and looks at a cabinet containing Sydney Opera House memorabilia.

The people’s history

When Lauren says that “we had a lot of data to work with,” she’s talking about the two remaining interactives. 'On This Day', a database of 365 separate events and performances that have taken place at the Sydney Opera House, one for every day of the calendar year. Designed to emphasise the extraordinary volume of activity taking place in and around the iconic sails, visitors use a touch interface with two spinning wheels—one for day, one for month—to select a date, and 'On This Day' will display media and a description of an event falling on that day from the past 50 years of Sydney Opera House history.

“It’s the most exquisite spreadsheet in the world,” says Jonny Kirk, Senior Design Director. 

The final interactive is 'Thanks For The Memories', a digital wall of memories generated entirely by members of the public and embedded within The People’s House using data visualisation. Through Museums of History NSW’s website, people are invited to submit their own personal memories of a concert, event, or any other meaningful moment spent at the Opera House. 

“It's something that can evolve over the life of the exhibition,” says Julien. “We started with some memories that we received from visitors prior to the opening, but as people come to experience The People’s House and as word spreads, this digital collage will grow over time.”

“Honestly, it is fascinating to stand there and look at that wall because the messages that are up there are just intriguing,” adds Liz. “You realize that this building, this international icon, is absolutely remarkable for so many reasons. The story of its construction is remarkable. The beauty of it is remarkable. But it's also remarkable in the way that it has connected with so many Australians and that's what you get from this exhibition—you get a real understanding that the Opera House is Australia's house.”

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.